Why The 10 Commandments Of Web Design Are Complete Baloney

Matthew Magain
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I read this morning in the SitePoint Industry News forum that BusinessWeek had compiled what is being referred to as The 10 Commandments of Web Design.

The experts who contributed to this list include widely read authors and speakers like Dan Cederholm, Dave Shea, Khoi Vinh and Jeffrey Zeldman. Here it is:

1. Thou shalt not abuse Flash.
2. Thou shalt not hide content.
3. Thou shalt not clutter.
4. Thou shalt not overuse glassy reflections.
5. Thou shalt not name your Web 2.0 company with an unnecessary surplus or dearth of vowels.
6. Thou shalt worship at the altar of typography.
7. Thou shalt create immersive experiences.
8. Thou shalt be social.
9. Thou shalt embrace proven technologies.
10. Thou shalt make content king.

On the surface, this advice seems reasonably innocuous. However, dig deeper and you’ll see that it all falls apart. Allow me to explain …

Before I launch into why I think this list is baloney, allow me a couple of minutes to don my flame suit. It’s a little dusty since I used it last. Oh, and don’t forget to grab a pinch of salt from the kitchen on your way through — you might need it.

OK, here we go. Deep breath … I’m going in.

  1. Thou shalt not abuse Flash.

    While in principle, I agree with this statement, it’s not because it relates to Flash. A better commandment would be “Choose the right tool for the trade, and master that tool.” Flash has its place, but HTML can be abused just as easily, as can CSS. Is abusing Flash any worse than abusing Ajax, for example? The accessibility problems are potentially even bigger with Ajax web apps than with pure Flash-based sites. And what exactly does “abusing” Flash mean, anyway? Building an entire site in Flash may be perfectly acceptable if done in an accessible manner.

  2. Thou shalt not hide content.

    Allow me to offer a somewhat contentious view — popups aren’t always evil. Yes, they (almost always) introduce usability issues, and yes, for regular visitors they are annoying and frustrating and can harm a site’s credibility etc etc. No doubt you’ve seen the occasional popup ad on sitepoint.com.

    Here’s why: they work.

    When it comes down to it, it’s all very well to stand on one’s usability soap box and declare “Don’t use popups!” But if your site is a for-profit enterprise, then you may be doing your business a disservice by not contemplating popup advertising as a legitimate revenue stream. Why? Because people click on them. They are engaging, and many visitors find them useful; this we know from experience.

    Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that popups shouldn’t be avoided, or that they aren’t annoying, or that there aren’t usability issues with them. What I’m saying is that it’s not always black and white. Usability is a science with fundamental principles, but it’s not the only influencing factor in the design of a for-profit web site. There are other factors, such as the bottom line — and as long as your site exists to turn a profit, this wrestling match between ideal and profitable will continue to exist.

    In fact, from an accessibility point of view, they’re far less evil than those JavaScript or Flash-based floatover advertisments that hide content and give the user no obvious indication of how to kill them. And there are plenty of successful sites that employ those techniques too, for the same reasons.

  3. Thou shalt not clutter.

    This is something I can’t really argue with, except to say that it’s ambiguous advice. BusinessWeek’s elaboration of the point alludes to something about information architecture and structure, yet clutter to me relates to a lack of white space, something that is evident in a site like, oh I don’t know, CraigsList. Which happens to be an example of good design later in the list. So which is it? Commandments shouldn’t be ambiguous. ‘Nuff said.

  4. Thou shalt not overuse glassy reflections.

    What? No glassy reflections? But how can you possibly hope to have your site listed in The Complete Web 2.0 Directory?

    OK, I’m kidding. No argument here.

  5. Thou shalt not name your Web 2.0 company with an unnecessary surplus or dearth of vowels.

    Hang on a minute — isn’t this a list about design?? Of all the principles relating to design — colour theory, layout, typography, contrast, grid theory, texture… what is domain naming advice doing on this list?

    If you’ve created a web app, then you’re not just a web designer — you’re probably a web developer too. And an entrepreneur. And a project manager. Let’s keep the list on target, shall we? Leave the domain name decisions for the marketers, entrepreneurs and domainers.

  6. Thou shalt worship at the altar of typography.

    My issue with this commandment is this: it’s the Web. Typography on the Web, as everyone knows, sucks. Implementing pullquotes and fancy drop letters on the Web in such a way that all visitors see them require markup hacks. And we don’t have widespread support of downloadable fonts yet, by any stretch, and there are plenty of hurdles to overcome before we do. Sure, we have sIFR and cascading font declarations and image replacement, but these aren’t enough tools for us to really take control in the typography arena.

    This may sound like a cop out, but until those tools exist, typography will continue to suck on the Web.

  7. Thou shalt create immersive experiences.

    Hands up who of you know what “immersive” means, and how to achieve it. I’m sure the creator of this list doesn’t — he defines immersive experiences as ones that “can capture and hold users’ attention,” and cites YouTube as one example of a site that does this well.

    Apart from the fact that the design of YouTube is cluttered, heavily Flash-reliant (possibly bordering on abuse) and contains 4 out of 7 vowels in its name, surely the reason people keep coming back to YouTube is because of the content it hosts, not the site’s design?

  8. Thou shalt be social.

    The paragraph explaining this list item begins with “Web 2.0 is everywhere”. It’s this point that I made my mind up that this post needed to be written. And MySpace started it all? Puh-lease.

    If your site is designed to include functionality that allows your users to communicate with each other, great. But it’s hardly something you simply must do to be successful. Jeremy Keith doesn’t allow comments on his blog. Would you consider him a successful blogger?

  9. Thou shalt embrace proven technologies.

    And I quote:

    Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, and their cohorts have become a part of daily life. Sites that can incorporate these elements into their design will connect with users in a meaningful way…

    Wha…? When did Facebook become a proven technology that you must incorporate into your site? And anyway — to what elements is he referring? The data from these sites, or the features that they employ? If the latter, surely this is just “being social” (see above). If the latter (which I suspect is what the author meant given his advice to provide “functionality and an interface with which they’re already familiar”) then surely this is advocating copycat design? Either way, this seems like a back-of-the-envelope idea at best; it certainly hasn’t been fleshed out or refined in sufficient detail to be a commandment.

  10. Thou shalt make content king.

    OK, so remind me again what this has to do with design. How many of you have designed and built a web site for clients, without receiving any content from them until the end of the project? How do you suppose that client might have reacted if you’d refused to press ahead with your design, and simple given the excuse “Sorry — I can’t do anything without your content”

    And finally, if the author and his team of expert designers truly believe that “content is king”, then doesn’t this undermine the importance of design in the first place?

In summary, this is one set of commandments that belong on a white board, not a stone tablet. There are certainly some elements in there that show promise, but unfortunately ambiguity, cliches and ill-informed advice gets in the way. It’s hardly a set of rules that have been refined enough to warrant printing out and posting in your cubicle, let alone etching in stone.

Image credit: Ben Cumming

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  • markwhitcher

    I appreciated this article, and agree with much of what is being said. Number 6 especially got a rant of approval from me as I was reading. Number 10, however, seems to relegate design to decoration.

    Design that does not have anything to do with content is nothing more than decoration. This subject is too big to be contained in a comment, so let me just focus on the last statement he made.

    if the author and his team of expert designers truly believe that “content is king”, then doesn’t this undermine the importance of design in the first place?

    Design is indeed important, but lifting up the content does not undermine that importance. Indeed, it is the design’s job to lift up the content, to communicate it, and it is the degree to which the design successfully does this that gives design it’s importance.

    No designer should be content with determining only what a site looks like. The design of the site is determined by everything from the words in the content, to the graphics around it, to the name with too many vowels in the address bar. It all determines the effectiveness of the site. It all needs to be designed. It all needs a designer.

  • http://www.dustindiaz.com polvero

    Hi Matthew (doh, just got a damn popup after clicking on this textarea).
    First off, I mostly side with your reasoning on why a lot of these commandments are crap in one form or another. But on another note, I don’t think any of those authors directly contributed to that article. I’m led to believe this by the last rule of “Content is King” is a direct pull from Jeffrey’s book, and perhaps taken completely out of context. Think about it, it’s in the context of “Designing with web standards,” where content comes first. Don’t get me wrong, I know what it’s like to work in shops where you’re screaming “but we have no content,” but the point here is that if you have no content, then you have no web site.

    Nevertheless, the article seems superfluous. It has vague suggestions with big names attached to it. I’d be interested in knowing how this article came to be published.

    – Dustin Diaz

  • http://www.studio-gecko.com/ XLCowBoy

    Sounds to me like BusinessWeek gave them 10 slots to fill in, and the deadline was on Saturday morning. ;)

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

    Sure, we have sIFR and cascading font declarations and image replacement, but these aren’t enough tools for us to really take control in the typography arena.

    There’s a lot more to typography than using fancy fonts and a lot that can be done typographically using just standard web fonts and CSS.

  • Andy Budd

    Regarding your second point that pop-ups work. My immediate thought was, “so does spam, but it doesn’t make it right.” The ends do not always justify the means.

  • Anonymous

    No doubt you’ve seen the occasional popup ad on sitepoint.com.

    Occasional? You have to be joking. I feel like I’m molested by pop ups every time I read here. Lucky for you, I’m willing to tolerate it because Sitepoint contributes some stuff worth enduring the annoyance. :)

  • Tom

    “My issue with this commandment is this: it’s the Web. Typography on the Web, as everyone knows, sucks.”

    Yes, this can be true, as most websites don’t use type particularly well. Yes, the typographic toolbox is limited somewhat compared to the print world.

    However, this doesn’t mean that typography has to suck. Typography is so much more than font choice and fancy decorations (such as pullquotes and versals, as you have mentioned). Typography is mainly concerned with legibility and hierarchy, and one does not need a huge font selection or bloated markup to achieve success with these.

    To paraphrase Bringhurst, great typography must honor the content and help it to become “king”. This is indeed possible with the current set of tools available to the web designer, and if done properly, will do anything but suck.

  • Digitalthread

    Point 6. Worship this… Why MUST type suck on the web? Because no on takes the time and effort to make it a little better. Here’s a link you SHOULD worship: http://webtypography.net/

  • nightingale2k1

    thou shall not argue anymore …

  • http://www.studio-gecko.com/ XLCowBoy

    No idea how this slipped by me, but I need to point this one out:

    How do you suppose that client might have reacted if you’d refused to press ahead with your design, and simple given the excuse “Sorry — I can’t do anything without your content”

    – That’s not an excuse. I’ve started making this a demand/requirement. If you wish to create a professional design, depending on what you’re building, you will need this early on.

    To be clear: If you are building a news/information website/blog, a sitemap is critical before you begin. If you are building a brochure-type website, the content AND the sitemap are critical before you begin (put it this way – try designing a professional print brochure without content -> it’s simply not possible).

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/christophedri Chris_lu

    There are many points to be discussed in BOTH articles. And there’s one mean reason to defend one or the other: It might only depends on the aim of your website!
    Content/information website cannot behave as entertainment website, neither shop site.

    Never try to draw constants on such vague subjects. It would nice as well not to use dishonest personal examples to assert something; it’s not because you did it once that it’s the perfect solution.

  • http://autisticcuckoo.net/ AutisticCuckoo

    Matt, believe it or not, but not everyone is a greedy commercialist concerned only about making the most amount of money with the least amount of work.

    Some of us work for the government, for instance, and our sites must be accessible to all citizens. Some of us even blog without cramming every page with advertisements! Yes, hard to believe, I know.

    There are even commercial companies who actually care about their visitors, and don’t have popup-infested sites just to trick non-savvy visitors into buying things they neither need nor want.

  • Matt

    Pop-ups certainly don’t work for me. Doesn’t matter what they say. If I didn’t click on something to result in the pop-up, I click that “never show again” link without even reading it.

  • Dimitry

    Love the link to the Zen garden page :)

    As for Number 10: content is king… Outside of a promo corporate site where graphics take away from the generic copy, any e-comm business or web service will want their content front and center, not a designer’s “wiked-cool” masthead and 9px font-size.

    Taken to extremes, a page with just content is more valuable than a page with just design. As designers, you’re there to suppliment the content, not challenge it. Content _is_ king.

    Peace

  • http://jacksonvillewebsitedesign.com/ jax web design

    I would like to see what you think the 10 commandments should be. Hmmm, it seems that you discounted some really helpful commandments as baloney.
    -jared b.

  • Stevie D

    I’d go with the commandments more than the criticisms.

    1. It’s true that we don’t want to abuse any design feature (that’s kind of what ‘abuse’ means, after all), but Flash is probably the worst one to abuse because it is the hardest to resolve when it’s done badly.

    2. You can’t hide content. If you do, it’s not content any more. If people can’t see it, there’s no point in having it there. Popups for advertising purpose are pure evil and should never be used. As Anonymous says, we just about tolerate the profusion of popups and flyouts and everything else that batters us when reading Sitepoint because the content makes it worth struggling through – but on a point of principle, I would never follow up intrusive advertising.

    3. No, thou shalt not clutter. Cluttered sites are hard to use. That’s not to say that they can’t be successful, if they are better than the alternatives or have a unique killer application – but if they were less cluttered, they could be even better. Clutter means that you can’t easily see what you want, and that means you are more likely to get out of the site without going any further.
    I don’t understand Craigslist. Looking at it for the first time, I followed a few links to get “local” but didn’t have a clue what it was offering or why I should follow it through. I got bored and frustrated before I got to any content, and I was given no reason to persevere. To me, it’s a completely failed design.

    5. Their point here, however flippant it may sound, is that if you try too hard to give your company/website a funky and contemporary name, unless it becomes the top site of its type and enters the general vocabulary (eg Google), it will become out of date quite quickly. That’s particularly true for sites with dodgy misspelled names!

    6. You are so wrong! Typography is vitally important to a successful website, and in answer to point 3, good typography can go a long way to reducing visual clutter. No, you can’t do as much on the web as you can with printed design, but you can still make a huge difference to the readibility and visual appeal of a page. Simple things like choosing an appropriate font (ie, not Times New Roman or Arial), setting good spacing and leading (usually slightly more than the default, if you’ve got large blocks of text), headings and so on. If you just go with the defaults, your site won’t be as good to read as someone’s who has spent some time tweaking the type.

    9. I think I know what they mean, although I’m not sure they’ve explained it as well as they could. There are two aspects. First, don’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t design a script-based menu when HTML works fine. Don’t spend days building a shopping-cart (for small generic sites) when an off-the-shelf one is going to do the job just as well. Second, do what users expect. Use paradigms they are familiar with. Take a lead from the big, popular sites like Facebook, Amazon and Wikipedia in terms of functions that people use and know. That doesn’t mean that you have to copy everything about those sites – we all know that there are lots of things wrong with them! – but remember that people are unlikely to invest time in learning how your website works – so if it works like other websites they already know, you’ll have a headstart in keeping hold of them.

    10. Content is king, and design without content is decoration. I know it’s a cliché in web design now, but design has to be the design of something. It has to work with the content. But most of all, you have to have content. People won’t immerse themselves in a website that looks pretty but does nothing, unless the function of the site is purely artistic. There’s no point in investing millions in the design and tens in the content, because you’ll end up with a website that isn’t worth looking at. If you get the content right, the design doesn’t have to be so good – look at Amazon, it’s hardly a paragon of good design, but it is (or at least was) unrivalled in content.

  • http://www.calcResult.co.uk omnicity

    Sorry, but I didn’t get much past:
    “Building an entire site in Flash may be perfectly acceptable if done in an accessible manner.”

    Oxy-moron there I think – a full-flash site is never going to be fully accessible, and even if it was I still wouldn’t use it at work, as the corporate firewall blocks it, and even if it didn’t it would have to be an amazing site for me to ever try.

  • Breton

    Ask Alex to lend you his copy of Bringhurst. After reading the elements, you will quickly change your tune about typography. As others have pointed out, there is far more to it than picking a fancy font.

  • http://www.impressivewebs.com Louistar

    I don’t think it’s necessary to assume that “design” in the phrase “10 commandments of web design” is limited to aesthetics. Web design is an all-encompassing term, and this post’s judgment of its use is a little off base and irrelevant to the point of the “10 commandments” article.

  • CubeMice

    Captain Barbosa on the breaking the pirate code: “… they’re more like guidelines than a real code anyway.” Same thing applies here: Hard ‘commandments’ are not going to apply to all situations.

    And if I hear “web 2.0″ one more time I’m gonna… I’m gonna… well I don’t know what I’ll do – but c’mon Sitepoint it’s been at least 3 years just call it “the web”!

  • fatpat

    Agree on 3 of these points for entirely different reasons. If you’re designing a web site for hard core business users or those used to creating complex macros using MS Excel flash/flex and clutter is good.

    • Thou shalt not abuse Flash.
    I don’t particularly care too much for the design ability of using Flash. But I do a lot of data presentation work using flex. The ability to show different sets of data and being able to view them in different ways – several types of graphical and tabular ways, showing hiding columns, highlighting rows is very useful from a business user’s perspective. Business users are already used to seeing complex tables.
    It is jolly hard to do this using javascript. Also in flex everything happens instantly. No server trips to fetch data.

    • Thou shalt not hide content.
    Ad revenue aside, a javascript confirm popup is almost mandatory when confirming deals worth millions of dollars. Sometimes even if they confirm I still take them to a sort of “final final” confirm page after which nothing can be changed.

    • Thou shalt not clutter.
    Again from a business users perspective we need to give them a choice on what they see on a dashboard. Some type of admin page where they check uncheck what they want to see immediately.
    As long as the clutter is classified and labeled properly then clutter is fine. Its like some of us work best on a cluttered table, others prefer their desks to be hospital clean. Give users a choice, that’s all.

  • Steve

    And finally, if the author and his team of expert designers truly believe that “content is king”, then doesn’t this undermine the importance of design in the first place?

    No. Design supports the communication of the message. It doesn’t take center stage. This is one of the basics of design.

  • vishrb

    That’s not an excuse. I’ve started making this a demand/requirement. If you

    wish to create a professional design, depending on what you’re building, you will need this early on.

    To be clear: If you are building a news/information website/blog, a sitemap is critical before you begin. If you are building a brochure-type website, the content AND the sitemap are critical before you begin (put it this way – try designing a professional print brochure without content -> it’s simply not possible).

    Is it content that is critical or a complete understanding of the content to be expected? It is not reasonable to ask a client to hand over all text and images that will be on the site at the beginning of the process. It is reasonable confirm the type of content and maybe even some excerpts or mockups of content. Am I wrong?

  • vishrb

    Sorry my previous post made a mockery of quotes. My comments are the last paragraph in response to the comments in the 2nd to last paragraph. Which were in response to the first 2 lines. lol…

  • http://www.experioronline.com Jenny McDermott

    I haven’t read the BW article, but your summary of it confirms what I’ve noticed for some time: the business press, with few exceptions (e.g., Wired) doesn’t understand the Web. I’m a bit disappointed that Dan Cedarholm would lend his name to this endeavor; his book on “Bulletproof Web Design” is one of the most useful I’ve ever encountered. But he needs money and name recognition as much as anyone else, I suppose.

  • Helen

    I agree with Stevie D. Well said.

    As for the typography commandment, I think BW is right. I don’t think they’re saying “use more pull quotes and drop shadows.” I take that as meaning: use type sizes, bold, etc. in a coherent hierarchy of information that can be quickly understood by the visitor; and make it readable! So many web sites use tiny type that is fatiguing to eyes over the age of 40, or color combinations of type and background that are headache-inducing. When I was trained as a graphic designer, it was all print, but some of the principles still hold: before you introduce a new font, style or size, you should have a reason that helps convey the information. That’s part of what “worshipping” typography means. Elsewhere on Sitepoint in one of the articles featured in your latest newsletter, one of your bloggers makes a similar point.

    As for Commandment 10 — you’re the *editor* of Sitepoint.com and don’t understand why content is king? I can’t design a good site for someone if I don’t have at least the basic content they’re starting with. Yes, content can always be added to, but we have to start with a basic framework. The visual part has to work with the content and help convey the “personality” of the site. Is the tone friendly, formal, businesslike, quirky? Is the audience male, female, or both? How are we going to organize the site? I’ve been designing web sites for 9 years, but I’m new to Sitepoint, and have found the newsletters really helpful. Therefore, I’m shocked at your attitude given your position within the organization.

  • http://www.quotecatcher.com/Site/Quote/WebInternet/WebDesign.aspx Quote Catcher

    I think it all depends on the ultimate goal of the site. If the client is looking to sell product or wants to ensure good organic search engine rankings than content needs to be king. Without good unique content it doesn’t matter how great we make the site look, it still won’t be picked up by Google.
    Also, in terms of Flash, Adobe has been rumbling about improving the ability to optimize Flash content but it has yet to be tested or proven. If you use too much flash than once again it effects your search engine rankings.

  • MCSE CBT

    I totally agree with this article.

  • No Flash

    I clicked on the link to the jkrowling site. All there was was a big Flash block. No “click here for HTML” that I always look for. There is nothing on that page but a big semi-transparent block (yesh, NoScript).
    When I deal with Flash/noFlash, I check: No Javascript but Flash? Flash but no Javascript? Neither? Half-blocked Javascript? Old Flash player? Crappy browser? NoScript? Flash is a problem and thus should either be an extra, or do the whole site in Flash and simply ignore those without Flash at all (oilily.nl I’m looking at you). Otherwise, you’d better be damned careful and check for ALL likely possibilities. jkrowling (the site) fails at NoScript.

  • Vic Webster

    Regarding 10: I usually get content, or at-least a very good idea of the content before I go ahead with the design. What is the design? It’s a way to display the content. The purpose of website content is not some random babble to build your killer design around. I have to disagree with 10. Content comes first. The designs is just different ways to dress it up.

  • http://boomshadow.net Jacob (Boom Shadow)

    Yeah, I’ve got to agree with this article. Those ‘commandments’ hardly justify being taken as any sort of words from a design God. Your last paragraph summarizes it all!